The Lecture

The lecture in recent years has become the ugly sister of teaching, scolded for its inability to engage a student’s full range of faculties, or sidelined in literature because it does not fit within our pedagogical frameworks (Fry et al p84). This fact withstanding Gibbs (1981 p1) suggests that lecturing as a teaching method still can be found in usage at a ratio as high as 2:1 in most Universities, for some institutions it is the only teaching method. Because of its prevalence within Higher Education institutions and this seemingly paradoxical position of its educational dislike and its omnipresence, it is vital to first have an understanding of what lecturing is and, secondly, to understand what place lecturing can pedagogically take within Higher Education. It is the authors view at the outset of this paper that, viewed in the right theoretical context, lecturing is both an economical and pedagogically sound method of teaching. To further explore this view this paper looks at what a lecture is, hoping to define a lecture as a tool, rather than an event and suggesting some practical classifications for lectures.

The paper will then focus its attention on whom we teach, exploring pedagogical theory to allow understanding of how the learning is taking place. Finally the paper will evaluate the current practice of the author and examine specifically how a two-hour lecture slot in a taught course can be best utilised in light of current thinking and what has been presented in the first part of this paper.

The traditional view of lecturing is large group broadcast teaching, where an individual stands and speaks on a given subject for a given period. This is in accordance with the definition from Collins English Dictionary (1991), specified as “a discourse on a particular subject given or read to an audience”.

As a definition, this may be fine for prose but is not nearly as close to the truth or good practice as needed for this paper. Fry et al (1999 p84 -85) point out six reasons to use a lecture (Appendix I). This can help define what is meant by such a discourse. Unfortunately, these six points give reasons to lecture but go no further in defining if there are one or many different categories of lecture. They are the content-based reasons rather than helpful tools.

Cannon (1998 p9 – 10) and Soliman (1999 p 5-6) are far more prescriptive defining four main classifications for such a discourse. The first is Basic, or Classical, where several broad areas are each subdivided into smaller subdivisions, each is the focus of a short exposition. This needs little or no interaction from the students and is perhaps what many consider a lecture. This is great to set out a large body of information, perhaps at the start of a semester to give the students the larger picture, or when starting to tackle a specific area of study where seeing the whole is beneficial before looking at the detail.

Next is the Comparative classification where two or more theories are presented, either opposing each other or building on each other. The focus of the exposition is to compare or contrast different points of view. This can be more interactive especially if students have had material to prepare and come ready to interact and discuss issues. This is a good tool to use when students need to be exposed to areas of contention, where there is no overriding theory or methodology in general use.

The Problem-focused classification is where a problem is presented and defined, alternative solutions are then proffered and these become the focus of the exposition. This tool can be used to help students think critically (Minton 2005 p145). If students are engaged within the lecture, it can be used not only to teach the subject of the lecture but also engender critical thinking skills in the students.

The final classification from Cannon (1998 p9 – 10) and Soliman (1999 p 5-6) is the Academic Argument or Thesis. A position is taken and expounded with supported evidence. The focus of the exposition is a particular point of view; an example may be guest lecture. As a teaching tool, this classification is used to expose the students to recent, new or personal understanding of a subject of model within a discipline. Material is presented which is not yet available generally in books or journals; it broadens the student’s view of a subject.

The author would wish to add to this set of classifications, Case Study, as another legitimate form of lecture, where the stage is set and the principles illustrated within a real world context (Bligh 1971, p172). These are analysed for their perspective strengths and weakness to the problem at the time. The actual decisions taken can then be presented at the end, with its consequences, good or bad. This addition to the list, though similar to problem-focused, differs because it is set in the real world with real world problems (Bligh 1971, p172). This type of lecture has the advantage that it can key into students experiences but does need some preparation on the students part if only reading through the case study and coming with some possible solutions of their own (Minton 2005, p285; Fry et al 2001, p139). This tool cements the theory to the real world scenarios and when handled properly is a very good learning tool and can key into students own experience.

Within teaching, each of the classifications could be further subdivided with activates to help with attention and understanding, but the main thrust of the lecture remains the same in its intended learning outcomes outlined above.

These classifications are far more helpful, turning vagary into tools, allowing the lecturer to identify more clearly what he hopes to accomplish (Bligh 1971 p61), rather than the lecture category being defined by the content and the situation it is to be delivered. These classifications, turn our sentiments for lecturing into tools we can use to deliver teaching, they can give us a direction in which to plan our delivery.

Having drawn out of the literature tools that can be used in teaching practice, it is now necessary to consider teaching in the context of a lecture and return to basics in the light of what we hope to achieve.

Smith (1997 pp13) in the Staff and Educational Development Association paper on lecturing provides a handy summary of how a majority of people learn (Appendix II). From this Classical lecturing can achieve at most 50% learning and at its most interactive 70% learning. Therefore, we always need to bare in mind what we hope to accomplish and how we are linking the students learning with other tasks before and after the lecture to enhance what we hope to teach in the lecture.

What is meant by ‘learning’? To answer the question of what happens when and how individuals learn is not easy. The roots of the modern debate about education and learning stretch back three hundred years to John Locke and Gottfried Leibniz in the late 1600’s (Biehler 1974 p 267-268). Both believed that a child is born “tabula rasa”, a mind that is a blank slate. However, Locke believed that humans are passive, only responding to external stimuli, whilst Leibnitz argued that the human animal was active, seeking knowledge. Furthermore Leibnitz maintained that people are not just a collection of acts but the source of those acts, and those acts are not random responses to external stimuli but purposeful (Biehler 1974 p 267-268). Here are the beginnings of the modern educational debate. It is the very processes within people which motivate and allow individuals to learn, and not the strict behaviourist view, which believes that it is external stimuli, that prompts us to learn (Biehler 1974 p 270). Rather than becoming mired in the philosophical debate as to what is learning, it could be argued that a vision of the learner is of greater importance than a definition of learning (Jarvis 2005 p 1-3).

Today the four main contenders for this vision of the learner are the Cognitive Psychologists, with the view of the student as an information processor, the Psychodynamic Psychologists with the view of learning as controlled by the psyche and the Humanists with the view of the learner seeking to fulfil their full potential. Finally there are the Social Constructivists, who see education as a social construct which is maintained by the state and society to control the proletariat (Jarvis 2005 p3 – 6)

Whatever the predominant underlying belief, teachers should be aware of all these factors when planning and setting goals in teaching.


Little has been written in recent years about lecturing, which challenges the beliefs held by Bligh (1971) in his book written back in the 1970’s. Certainly little in-depth work has been attempted to examine lecturing in light of current pedagogical understanding rather than the Behaviourist stance Bligh (1971) appears to take in his early book. We seem to have reached a point in time where we feel we understand the process of large group teaching to the extent that we only regurgitate research, which has been written up to 10 years ago. It is the author’s opinion that it is high time we revisited this area of teaching and looks a fresh at its place in teaching in Higher Education.

Over the last few years we have seen the traditional view of the transmission of knowledge change to the view that the role of educators should be the development of critical thinking skills in our learners (Jarvis 2005 p96). As Jarvis points out this is not a new idea, what is different is that increasingly our curricula are filled with assessment which judges knowledge rather than thinking skills we must decide what we wish to teach, and assess that rather than the schizophrenic methods and messages we send to our students.

In the context of Bournemouth University, there has been a move away from the traditional lecture seminar set up to large group broadcast teaching. This in its self should not be a huge problem as long as teaching staff adjusts their content and teaching methods.


Atherton, J. S. 2005 Learning and Teaching: Deep and Surface learning [On-line] UK: Available:file:///C:/Documents%20and%20Settings/Home/Desktop/MAAP/Learning%20Taxonomies%20and%20theorys/Deep%20and%20Surface%20learning.htm Accessed: 8 January 2006

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Race, P. 2001.The lecturer’s toolkit. Second edition. Kogan Page Ltd.

Sinclair, J. M. 1991, Collins English Dictionary. Third Edition, Harper and Collins.

Smith, B. 1997. Lecturing to large groups. SEDA Special No.1 July 1997. SEDA Publishing

Soliman, I. 1999. Lecturing to large groups. Teaching and Learning Centre. University of New England.

Steinert, Y. Snell, S.S. Interactive lecturing: Strategies for increasing participation in large group presentations. (on line): available at (Last accessed 20/12/2005)

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